the long slow death of a narrative

May 9 in Tartu is a splendid day because it’s just like any other day. From your laptop you can watch the hysterics of Tallinn light up the pages of Postimees or Eesti Päevaleht, and yet it seems so far away.

In Moscow, though, it’s the major national holiday and I have come to see the Russian rulers’ saber-rattling Victory Day speeches less as aimed at troublesome neighboring nations, but for internal consumption.

Russia is like most post-communist states, Germany included, in that it had to rewrite its history to serve redefined national purposes after 1991. In salvaging pieces of the past to serve the new regime, Putin revived Victory Day to recall some of his favorite themes: encirclement by hostile nations; personal sacrifice to benevolent despots; the moral imperative of intervention abroad; and the fusion of material and metaphysical faith in one person, the national leader, namely himself.

Now it is Dmitri “Jesus Kerensky” Medvedev who stands to command Russia’s armies of tanks, missiles, and goosestepping soldiers, and his party, United Russia, is about to serve up some post-Soviet identity-building desserts, a new law that will ban criticism of its victory in the Second World War.

From my perspective, as an American, a law signed by Medvedev will make him look especially unlike the hard rock-loving Gazpromite we all wanted him to be. In my 9th grade social studies class, we debated the merits of dropping those bombs on Japan and, perhaps, internalized a degree of national guilt. Reflection on the manner in which the victory was achieved was part of the curriculum. But I shouldn’t worry too much about myself, because Russia’s new law isn’t aimed at me. It is aimed at states existing on the former territory of the USSR.

From where Moscow derives the authority to prosecute Ukrainians but not Poles or Finns is beyond me. But it is not like the bill is anything but arbitrary. The law will “criminalize statements and acts that deny the Soviets won World War II, or claim it used poor tactics in battle or did not liberate Eastern Europe.” So, basically, if you are from Estonia and they do not like you, you could face a fine of up to around $9,200 or up to three years in prison.

Ostensibly, this is just another arrow in Moscow’s quiver to reduce the status of politicians in neighboring countries who it sees as not espousing views in line with its interests. Of course, the most NATO-friendly politicians are the ones who are most keen to develop a culture of resistance within their home countries. But there is another reason why Moscow can only target former citizens of the USSR: under the terms of the law, few modern Western historians or journalists who have written about the Second World War could enter the Russian Federation without fear of arrest or fine.

For example, I hold before me Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, a bestseller called “superb” and “magnificent” by British media. In his book, he details the widespread rape of women in former Axis territory on the Eastern Front by the Red Army in 1945. He notes that the Baltic countries were “occupied three times” between 1940 and 1945. Would this esteemed Western author be eligible for a fine or imprisonment at the hands of Russian authorities if the draft law is passed? Yes, but only if he were not British, but a citizen of one of the “newly independent” states.

While such circumstances are depressing and foolish, ultimately, the dilemma is Russia’s, not ours in the West. As their economy slips and Putin and Medvedev’s approval ratings decline — a trend that is understandable when Putin has held power now for almost a decade — they have to put battle armor on their ideology to protect it, unless such questions spread to Russia proper, and it seems they already have.

According to Time, the catalyst for the new law supposedly came not from Tallinn’s relocated Bronze Soldier or Ukrainian endeavors to resurrect the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but after Russian television channel NTV broadcast a documentary about the Battles of Rzhev. The documentary exposed the number of Soviet soldiers killed, around a million compared to around 500,000 on the Nazi side, and presented a “negative interpretation of Soviet tactics by, for example, showing how shocked German soldiers who had fought in the battles were at the way Soviet troops were thrown into the fight with little regard for their lives.”

So, the nature of the questions are actually less about ideology and more about reform. Then, as now, Russia’s military is in desperate need of modernization. Questions about its performance in the sacred victory against Nazi Germany dredge up questions about equipment and training and even respect for the lives of average Russian soldiers.

Russia lost around 25 million soldiers and civilians in the Second World War. The question naturally follows, did the casualty rate have to be so high? Or were so many lives lost due to Soviet-style mismanagement of the armed forces? Does such mismanagement continue to this day? Is it wise to trust the national leader with your life? Such questions are no doubt bad for morale in the Russian military, and dangerous for a regime that wishes to maintain its access to power for as long as possible.

Tuulepealne Maa

Meantime, the Estonian narrative continues to devolve occasionally into mindless squabbling and invocation of symbols that now seem comical rather than shocking. Swastika? Hammer and sickle? Each now carries the political weight of the sign at the local McDonalds.

Just years ago the monument at Tõnismägi was considered sacred to some. Now its image is about as sacred as a golden calf, or at least a paper mache replica painted gold by a local artist. The false idol was erected briefly on the grassy knoll by the national library, but quickly removed by the politsei.

Outside the Russian embassy in Tallinn’s Old Town local Estonian nationalists picketed with dreadfully predictable signs and slogans. The sign above reads “Occupants out and down with collaborators!” But who are these collaborators? On closer inspection, it appears to be Social Democrat Urve Palo, Minister of Population and Ethnic Affairs, and Tallinn Mayor and Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar.

While the Estonian nationalists outside the Russian embassy are afforded the same level of respect in mainstream national discourse as fellows like Johan Bäckman or Dmitri Linter (with the obvious discrepancy that Tiit Madisson, author of Holocaust: the 20th Century’s Most Depressing Zionist Lie, actually went to jail while the latter didn’t), their digs at other Estonians are somewhat representative of the status of Estonia’s current postwar discussion on WWII.

It’s gone from blaming outsiders to thinking about the roles of Estonians in the services of foreign states, be it the USSR or Nazi Germany. I noticed that in the recent television series, Tuulepealne Maa, which aired last fall, most of the “bad guys” — Reds during the war of independence, Soviets in 1940 and ’41 — were Estonians. When one of the main female characters was violated and murdered at the end of the series, it wasn’t Germans or Russians who did it; it was Estonians in the local destruction battalions.

What to make of the “collaborator/resister” meme in domestic Estonian politics? Unfortunately, it is all too common an undercurrent in contemporary European politics. People try to turn one continental crisis into a Biblical story containing universal messages. It’s history as religion, and it’s actually quite scary. Good thing I don’t believe.


41 thoughts on “the long slow death of a narrative”

  1. Fascinating and diabolically clever in a way, the fact that they could expand the front into Western-style litigation. Good write-up, but I fear the title of this post could more like “a meme that shows no sign of age”.


  2. All of these state-sponsored memes seem to be patterned on Israel, except Israel continues to be a very insecure country. What is the value in literally enforcing your view of history on others?

    I don’t think Estonia was occupied because Ansip says so, I think so because that’s what most Western historians agree on, and even if they don’t agree on the ‘o’ word, and use “annexation” or “absorption” or “anschluss” instead, they at least tell you that it was involuntary, illegal, and due to the Soviet-Nazi pact.


  3. Martin Helme is a man I don’t get. Ok, so not all delusional people fit in the Paldiski Road asylum and you have a mug with a swastika on it for drinking Jew blood in the late hours of the night when snuggled up with Mein Kampf, but if you’re trying to get elected into the European Parliament!!! (no to mention your father is Mart Helme, who almost unconditionally hates Russians and Russia, but is definitely not an idiot, but an experienced diplomat!) then how on earth is it possible you think it good for your campaign to come onto the streets with swastikas and slogans like: Hitler wore the pants around Germany, it’s time Estonians did the same” …

    Enlighten me please

    “the left one is more right than the chair” kind of logic


  4. I think this “clash of narratives” and “state-sponsored memes” had to exist now, since this is the first time in the Baltic states (and to a smaller extent in Russia) that the past can be discussed in any way other than the official Communist version.

    The Baltic countries and their talks about “collaborators” vs. “resistants” are going through what France and the Low Countries went through right after WWII — the same discussions, the same oppositions, the same boiling emotions and quasi-religious beliefs. They’re having it 50-60 years after the fact, thanks to the CCCP; but they’re having it.

    If the parallel holds, then I am mildly optimistic. After all, the French did come to terms with their history (the Papon case a few years ago was still painfully felt, but already in a much less “quasi-religious” way). I suppose that, given time, the Estonians also will.

    Of course, the attitude of the Russian federation is not going to help. And with the Estonian press feeding the fear of possible Russian expansionism, it may take much longer for Estonia than it did for France.

    After all, WWII (in fact a continuation of WWI) was a major defining event in the history of Europe (just like the Civil War was for America). Pretty much every country in this continent has some “patriotic myths” about what went on between 1939 and 1945 and the role they played in it. Since the suffering was so enormous, attempting to discuss these myths and to use historical methods to evaluate them is bound to be seen at least by some people as “desacrating the memory of those who died so that we might live”. We may still see generations of heated rhetorics about it… sadly reminiscent of the kind of patriotic rhetorics so typical of pre-WWI international politics.


  5. Lingüista,

    There is a theory that it is more intense now because the generation that experienced it as adults is dying out. The meme of victimhood is stronger, because most people who remember the conflict were victims rather than participants.


  6. It’s really much more simple than that:

    No one wants to be the bad guy.

    Maybe for a little while, it’s okay to to some of the things the bad guys do – you know, as a means to an end – but at the end of the day I want to be able to look in the mirror and tell myself I’m okay.

    It’s awfully hard for me to keep telling myself I’m okay, if you keep pointing out I’m wearing the black hat. So, I hit you with a stick until you say my hat is white, and then I feel much better.

    Of course, what’s even better is if I can just carry the stick menacingly and you tell me my hat is white in order to avoid my beating you. Then I really am the good guy, because I didn’t even resort to true and obvious violence at any point. You just up and told the world I’m okay, of your own volition.

    If I say I’m okay, and you say I’m okay, then everyone must think I’m okay… right?


  7. Nearly 90 years on and Ireland is still struggling with the fallout from the civil war, the division still to be seen in the political landscape of the country as between <>Fine Gael<> with roots that go back to Michael Collins and the pro-Treaty side and <>Fianna Fáil<>, established by Éamon de Valera and the anti-treatiests.

    The legends of the leaders and the distrust of the leaders have been passed from generation to generation and as a result it is difficult to write up a universal, unbiased and factual account of C. 20th Ireland.

    As a young person, even though I have my own preferences on the story and my own heroes, I believe it’s to move on create a better future for our children’s children.

    And so that’s why I can’t make up my mind whether the rise of nationalism in Russia is something to be feared or ignored.


  8. My problem is that I cannot understand it. I understand that Russians need to commemorate the dead, or reflect on a common past or purpose. I can’t understand the desire to arrest people in neighboring states for writing ideas that deviate from the official Soviet-era script, especially when most historians agree that script is false.

    This is like something out of a Dr. Seus book. Imagine the prohibition of criticizing the American war effort in Vietnam. One couldn’t even write a history of the Vietnam war if that were the case! They’d have to stick to whatever the censors fed them, unless they preferred a fine or arrest.


  9. Giustino, I personally also find this difficult to understand on an intellectual level. It is difficult to imagine that adult people with adult minds really think that different opinions on WWII and the Soviet “liberation” are equivalent to “fascism revivalism”. To use your parallel, this would be like thinking that criticizing the American participation in the Vietnam war implies supporting stalinist communism.

    Yet… didn’t some American right-wing hard-liners actually think exactly that?

    In the case of these hard-liners — and I think in the case of Russia — I think the explanation is the national myth. “America” is an ideal that has to be defended; if you are against what “America” does, then you must be in favor of “America”‘s enemies. It’s simple-minded, simplistic, you name it. And it comes from this deep sense of identification with one’s “patriotic ideal”.

    The Russians are now building on the myth of Mother Russia the Winner of the Great Patriotic War, the Defeater of Evil. With the same simplistic thinking, they will feel proud of Russia’s heroic battle against Nazi Germany and how Russia defeated “the Nazi Beast” that wanted to reduce Slavs to slaves. More than proud: they will base some of their very feeling of nationhood on this idea.

    So the equation becomes: an attack against Our Great Victory Against the Beast becomes support for The Beast. What? You’re not denying that Russia won the war, you’re not denying that defeating Hitler was a great feat; you’re just saying Eastern Europe didn’t feel liberated by the Red army and by (imposed) communism? Shame on you! Don’t you know How Much Russia Suffered to Defeat the Nazi Beast? How Dare You Defend the Nazis?

    What? You’re not defending the Nazis? Of course you are! You’re Attacking The Honor of the Defeater of the Nazis! Of COURSE this is a cunning move, a first step in your Evil Plan to Steal all the Glory of our Nation in Defeating the Nazi Beast! Do you think we’re naive? Do you think we don’t see your plans? The world is once again against us! They forget How Much We Suffered! They want to persecute our veterans — look at what the Estonians did with Meri! A war hero!

    Etc. etc. etc…

    Plus of course the occasional Milosevic-like opportunistic politician who doesn’t (or only half) believe this stuff but wants to derive political capital from it.

    In other words: it’s not rational. Partially it’s what Sharon B said above — the need to feel that they’re good, the idea that they have the right to consider themselves good given how much they suffered to defeat the Nazi, plus the the-world-is-against-us mentality that translates criticism of Soviet strategies and communism into sneak attacks against Russia’s honor and their poor veterans.

    It’s ultimately very childish, I think. Unfortunately, history tells us that people can be very childish.


  10. I guess not! 🙂 My question would be whether gospodin Shoigu actually believes what he says (the world conspiracy against our heroes) or whether he’s just being opportunistic.

    Here’s a little example of the mentality I mentioned that I found at youtube: a Latvian criticizing a Russian news segment from the Russian channel Zvesda (Star) on “Latvian Fascism” (caution: there are some strong images of dead bodies…). The part about the swastika is especially revealing. (I’m afraid the whole thing is in Russian; I hope this won’t make it impossible to follow…)

    (P.S.: I remember a friend’s comment about how Russian culture gives a lot of importance to the concept of “shame”; this might help explain why trying to criticize Soviet war strategies is so offensive — it is throwing “shame” on our heroes. That reminded me of Putin on television saying “Kak vam ne stõdno!” — “shame on you!” — at the West because of their support for the independence of Kosovo. “Shame” is much less frequently used in Western political discourse, I think.)


  11. <>Here’s a little example of the mentality I mentioned that I found at youtube: a Latvian criticizing a Russian news segment from the Russian channel Zvesda (Star) on “Latvian Fascism”<>That’s the genius of Latvia. It’s like they know Russians so well, they can make propaganda just like them, except with opposite messages (see < HREF="" REL="nofollow">The Soviet Story<> by Edvins Snore).


  12. Oy vey, what I really want to know is will there be arrests and executions in wrongdoers houses in them neighboring states? Mother Russia’s avenging hand has reached out to strike down her enemies in London and Dubai, so it shouldn’t be impossible to imagine some notorious falsifier of history dragged to face justice in Russian courts.


  13. <>It is difficult to imagine that adult people with adult minds really think that different opinions on WWII and the Soviet “liberation” are equivalent to “fascism revivalism”. To use your parallel, this would be like thinking that criticizing the American participation in the Vietnam war implies supporting stalinist communism.<>A French history teacher (who was also French by nationality) taught me in Tallinn University that colonialism was actually in the interest of the colonized countries and all those native Americans, Africans and Asians were (or should have) actually grateful for being oppressed – as long as the colonists were French or Belgian.


  14. The Germans and the Brits, on the other hand – THEY did all the bad things, according to my professor. The French were just too busy distributing medicines and building infrastructure.


  15. Does the Russian law also govern science fiction works? Can I write a piece set in another universe in which Hitler does not invade Russia in 1941 and in which the Soviets remain fascist allies?


  16. In other news: rejoice, the natural growth of Estonians (nationality) was positive last year according to the Statistikaamet. First time since 1990.


  17. That’s good news! The demographic situation in this country is really changing. Every county and city, save Harjumaa, Tallinn, Tartumaa, and Tartu, is losing people. Ida Virumaa sheds more than 1,000 people a year. Over the past 20 years, Ida Viru has lost 52,000 people. In comparison, Tartu county has lost around 13,000. It only went positive in 2004

    Just like the economy, maybe there is a bottom and we’ll see some recovery. But is a fascinating place, and it’s easy to make nifty charts.


  18. Kristopher, you’d certainly be criticized (“we know what you REALLY mean!”). But as long as you make it clear that you’re doing fiction, I don’t think this can be called “historical falsification”, so they’d have a hard time getting you convicted… unless they wanted to make you another Khodorovsky.

    Since I’m a big alternate history fan, I’d encourage you to write this story! I’d be curious about the details…

    Good to know that there is some increase in the Estonian population! Now, I’m curious: this decrease in natality is supposed to be common to all developed countries (getting rich makes you have other entertainment alternatives to making babies), but at least <>a priori<> I wouldn’t have expected it to happen in the Communist countries as well. Yet already in the Soviet times there often was negative net natality (e.g. East Germany). Does anyone know why exactly this was so? What was the anti-baby incentive in the former East Block?


  19. A major problem problem with Estonian indentity and the government in exile during the era of Soviet occupation is that in order to make it to allied territory people had to collaborate with the Nazis somehow. Unless a bunch of reindeer herders smuggled them. It really was being between a rock and a hard place.But the thing is it is over sixty years later and it really doesn t matter and if you let it matter you are a moron. A friend of mine , actually a whole group of friends wont talk to me because I have pointed out that her grandfather worked as a field doctor for the Nazis. Did I ever say he was a horrible person, no. But I stated a historical fact.


  20. <>Since I’m a big alternate history fan, I’d encourage you to write this story! I’d be curious about the details…<>The “if I wrote” is totally rhetorical. I can name at least three regulars on this blog who put my WWII knowledge to shame.

    Puu, did you mean Sharon, or is Shannon some famous author I should know?


  21. Puu, quite an interesting article. The paragraph that I found most interesting was this one:

    <>At the time, official advisers said the mothers of these children must have been mentally retarded to have relations with a German soldier, and thus their children must also be afflicted.<>If Norwegians in the 40’s and 50’s could think like that, why Estonians are not exaggerating too much in their mumblings about “collaborators”, are they?

    In fact, ever since the renewal of independence, has there been any official or quasi-official persecution of people who “collaborated” with the Soviet regime? You know, not people who committed crimes, but who simply “collaborated”? (I remember having expected that at least the émigré Estonians who came back would be very hard on their brethren who stayed in Estonia and “collaborated” with the authorities. I half-expected there to be a “Wessie vs. Aussie” mentality problem between émigrés and non-émigrés. But everything seems to have gone remarkably well, without too much questioning of other people’s past. The very fact that old Communist Party leaders like Rüütel ended up playing an important role in the independence process without this causing too much popular outrage suggests that this “collaborators” meme isn’t be very deep in the mind of the Estonians.)

    Giustino, how about a post some day about demographics in Estonia, and how Estonians can make sure they don’t become an endangered species? 🙂


  22. <>Giustino, how about a post some day about demographics in Estonia, and how Estonians can make sure they don’t become an endangered species? 🙂<>What specifically?


  23. <>Giustino, how about a post some day about demographics in Estonia, and how Estonians can make sure they don’t become an endangered species? 🙂<>Linguista! get your mind out of the gutter!


  24. Well, I’m more interested in the serious stuff — how come Estonians (and for that matter all Eastern Europeans except — sometimes — Poland) are losing population instead of gaining, even when emigration is factored out. Low natality rate are of course the trend in all developed countries, but why have they become so low in Eastern European countries? Even demographically full countries like the Netherlands are still producing babies at a higher late than they lose people to old age. What explains that? Ideology? The spirit of the people? More concern about careers than about families? No interest in children? The <>mal de vivre<>?

    But frankly, Puu, what is guttery about suggesting Estonians have more kids? It’s not like being occupied by a neighboring power…


  25. <>Well, I’m more interested in the serious stuff — how come Estonians are losing population instead of gaining, even when emigration is factored out.<>Estonia had somewhat artificial population growth during the 1945-1990 period. Up to one-fifth of the population in the 1980s was either born out of republic or the child of parents born out of republic. That’s not really organic population growth.

    The restoration of independence turned off the tap. The ensuing economic depression forced men to go abroad for work. The closure of all union factories and obsolescence of the jobs held by the Soviet workers meant that they too would have to find work elsewhere. Like I said, 52,000 people either left Ida Virumaa or died over the past 20 years. That’s like 25 percent of the population.

    I’d like to predict population growth in the years ahead, but I just read that Estonia has 12,000 HIV cases, half of whom need medicine, and a quarter of which aren’t getting it. That’s 3,000 people right there. So, no, we haven’t reached bottom yet.


  26. I think part of Estonia population problem is the fact that in order to get the presidential palace, an influential blog, a house in New Jersey… Estonian women had to sleep with men who arent Estonian, mostly because Estonian men are too engaged in alcoholic self destruction. My mom was engaged to an Estonian guy before she married my American Irish dad, but he drank himself to death in the mid eighties…but it makes for a nice society, and the foreign men are so blinded by all the cooking and cleaning and sex that they let their estonian wonderwomen raise the kids anyway they want. And so the language is perserved.
    I realize these comments might be offensive and apologize they are meant as half satire.


  27. I suppose many Estonian men (I notice they’re the majority among politicians still) would beg to differ… Hey, drinking themselves to death is not the stereotype I had about Estonians; more the hard-working realist (a bit like the Finns) or at least always dead serious Northern guy (like the Scandinavians in general). Drinking themselves to death makes them look more like Russian stereotypes. How does this compute?

    It is interesting that all mixed couples I’ve met here in the Netherlands were Estonian women with Dutch men (there’s a group of 6 of them now trying to learn Estonian in Gouda; I go there to listen to the language live). I once asked one of the Dutch men how come there were no Estonian men married to Dutch women there, and he answered: “it’s because Estonian men are stupid, Dutch men are smart, and Estonian women are beautiful”. I’m sure there’s more than an once of sexism in there, but I see even more national stereotypes…

    So what are Estonian men <>really<> like? (Interestingly, up until now I have not met a single Estonian man. All Estonians in the Gouda group were women… and the few students I’ve met at the University were also women.)


  28. Giustino, the fact that the population growth you mentioned was artificial (i.e. largely because of URSS-internal migration) suggests that the natality rate was small or even negative already for quite a while during that period. I’m even wondering, have (native, non-migrant) Estonians even managed to reach pre-WWII numbers in Estonia? For how long has their number been decreasing? What was natality like before WWII?


  29. Curiously, < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Wikipedia<> says the birth rate in Estonia was above the death rate till 1990! The first time more people died than were born in Estonia was in 1991. Now, why should that be the case?


  30. <>I once asked one of the Dutch men how come there were no Estonian men married to Dutch women there, and he answered: “it’s because Estonian men are stupid, Dutch men are smart, and Estonian women are beautiful”. I’m sure there’s more than an once of sexism in there, but I see even more national stereotypes…<>Ugh, Dutch people.

    Anyway, much simpler answer, Estonia is 54 percent female and 46percent male. That means that there literally are not enough men for the women.

    I have met several couples where the man was Estonian and the woman was foreign. There was a British woman here in Tartu whose husband was Estonian, and I met a Finnish woman here who was married to an Estonian guy too. Maybe these kinds of couples are less conspicuous.

    <>the foreign men are so blinded by all the cooking and cleaning and sex that they let their estonian wonderwomen raise the kids anyway they want. And so the language is perserved.<>I am not sure if Estonian cooking is so good as to blind someone. Cleaning? It takes two to shake a carpet. And sex? To paraphrase Tammsaare, love only comes via hard work. Sex has nothing to do with it. But, yes, the language is preserved in some cases. Puu, sul on õigus!


  31. And lots of people endorse the marry foreign idea:

    < HREF="" REL="nofollow"> like here<>


  32. Does the new bill actually state that foreign citizens can be prosecuted? Surely, they can be denied entry into Russia, but isn’t that all they have authority to do?

    Lingüista, I found your analysis of the Russian narrative extremely amusing! I have never seen it formulated so precisely…

    What does say about the recent demographics? I tried to find it, but I sometimes find the site quite confusing.


  33. I suppose, as far as foreigner “falsifiers of history” are concerned, denying them entry visas is all they can do. And of course write a lot in the local press about how these people are doing evil things to Russia.

    I suppose the really bad part is what they can do to people <>inside<> Russia. Despite the outward-looking appearance of the proposed law, what I see most pundits worrying about is that it’ll be used to stifle independent historical thinking inside Russia. No more criticism of the Suur Isamaasõda inside the Russian Federation! No quibbling with how many soldiers were uselessly slaughtered, with the persecution of civilian populations (whole villages sent to Siberia just because they survived Nazi occupation), no talk of a Holodomor… And, don’t forget, Stalin was somewhat strict and a little exaggerated, but he was a man of strong will and did what had to be done. Etc.


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